The Big Garden Project 2010: Season in Review

Me in the GardenToday’s post is a sort of Academy Awards for “The Big Garden Project”. The garden is done for the season. All that remains to be done is a final clean-up and packing away of the reusable structures we put in place. So, without further delay, here’s the host for tonight’s awards, the first-time gardener, cucumber convert, himself…

“The Big Garden Project” sprouted from a deep-seeded interest of mine to be more connected to our food sources. In our modern-day diets, it’s possible to have fresh tomatoes in December, raspberries in February, asparagus in July — and we’ve gotten so far away from the sources of our sustenance that none of these things are considered luxuries or novelties. Where there was once a time in our country that folks grew most of their own food or at least bought it in season and preserved it for use for the rest of the year, we’ve moved on to a faster-paced, more convenient mindset in our food culture.

As Barbara Kingsolver pointed out in “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”, many children as well as adults are often surprised to learn that their food has had any contact with dirt at all! Supermarket culture has become so ingrained in our society that it’s more conceivable, to some, that broccoli sprouts up from the produce rack because the little sprinkler comes on every hour or so.

While, on one hand, I do see certain benefits to this proposition of having fresh, abundant foods available for our every whim in any season, I think it’s sad that many have lost touch with the idea of nature and how the seasons determine our diets (not to mention other negatives: the environmental implications of shipping highly perishable foods across the planet, the often unfair trade agreements set forth by agribusiness, and the general lack of quality in foods that are produced for mere transportability rather than quality and taste).

For two years, I sat on a waiting list to be a part of the community garden program in our city. I bided my time by reading tomes of information about vegetable gardening and various techniques – new and old. However, I was beginning to see that I would always be on the waiting list and forever fantasizing about having my own garden. So, in a foolhardy show of enthusiasm, James and I finally decided, this year, to rent a garden plot that was over 40 miles from our home, near James’ office.

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And so began an epic journey of rigorous, dirty, tiresome, mosquito-plagued and deeply rewarding experiences! Though getting things started proved to be tricky (the actual dimensions of our garden were not made known to us until well after we had had to start our seedlings), once I stood back from our garden and saw the neatly-shaped beds, the carefully seeded rows, and the first transplanted seedlings in place, I knew that we were in for a treat.

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Today we’re going to look back on the actual results of the garden: what worked and what didn’t. To get it out of the way, first, the let-downs and the no-shows:

    No-show Nasturtiums — My goal was to have companion planting of nasturtiums and pumpkins. We’ve grown nasturtiums with great ease on our balcony many times, so I was very surprised when not one of the seeds I planted sprouted. Nasturtium seeds can be tricky. They usually require soaking or being “scarified” so that moisture penetrates the tough seed coat and a sprout can emerge. Unfortunately, in spite of the good soaking, we saw no sign of them, this year.

    Summer Solstice Zinnias Never Appeared — Just like the nasturtiums, these were directly sown and never sprouted. I’ve never grown this particular variety, before, so I’m not sure what may’ve caused the problem.

    Cabbages Lost Their Heads — Had we been able to plant them sooner, I have a feeling that the cabbages would have benefited from the cool weather and possibly would have reached maturity before the hottest days of summer were upon us. Sadly, the plants thrived and then lost their way as the heat set in and the pests took care of the rest.

    Grandma’s Cut Flower Garden Retired Early — This was an interesting blend of different flower seeds. I decided to sow them into a single bed and hoped to be greeted with tons of blossoms to pick and share with folks. Sadly, the weed seeds were also in the bed and it was impossible to distinguish between weed seedlings and flower seedlings. The bed never produced more than a few tiny flowers and tons of very aggressive weeds.

And, continuing to harp on the negative, the methods and equipment that proved faulty:

    The bean trellising system I adopted eventually leaned until it fell. This was due to shoddy IMG_0397staking materials. In general, however, the method I was using was too laborious and not very attractive, to boot. I’d like to try pole bean “tee-pees” in the future.

    The brilliant layout scheme I devised in spite of our less-than-originally-promised space proved to be too ambitious. By the middle of the season, walking from one end of the garden was like a really clumsy game of Twister. The paths were far too narrow (some only one foot wide) and the placement of the beds — while not unappealing, visually — were not as practical as I’d hoped. Though it would’ve meant a significant reduction in growing space, I would’ve liked the paths to be wider and a simpler layout.

    The “double hoe” ended up being the laughing stock of all garden tools. It seemed like a good idea, at the time, but ended up being virtually useless in spite of all my efforts to try to put it to use. Maybe if I had planted in rows instead of intensive spacings and if I hadn’t used ground cover fabric in so many places, I would’ve eventually needed it.

    IMG_0402One of the ways I’d hoped to increase growing area was to put most of the taller and decorative plants along two sides of the fence. Here I planted Autumn Beauty sunflowers along the northern fence and Summer Solstice zinnias along the eastern fence. The weakness of the idea was that there were also paths along these two fences which made for an even more crowded pathway and compromised soil conditions for the plants. Bad idea.

    Trellising our particular variety of cucumbers (Homemade Pickles) was probably not even necessary. The vines did not get incredibly big and the plants seemed very indifferent to the trellising system.

    Growing pumpkins in such a small space was a risky and crazy idea. While I did get more pumpkins than I know what to do with, I feel as though it was more from luck than skill. The vines were very crowded, they crept into the cabbage and carrot bed, took over the entire fence path, went through the fence, over the fence, and even took out one or two sunflower plants. There’s got to be a better way!

Moving on, the garden was made infinitely better by a few techniques and ideas that are definitely worth repeating if not expanding upon:

    Starting a lot of plants from seed was not only rewarding for the unique variety of plants we were able to produce, but it also gave us quite a head start for our climate zone. Not to boast, but our Cucumber Seedlingtomato plants looked ten times beefier than any that I saw in the big-box garden centers. Thanks to an early-producing tomato variety I’d chosen, we had our first ripened tomatoes after the plants had only been in the ground for a little over a month!

    Testing the soil — even with a relatively simple, cheap kit — really gave a clear picture of the soil’s overall condition. Armed with that information, we were able to plan how many amendments needed to be added and how much. Our plants responded to this, I feel.

    In addition to aerating the soil for the beds and making sure that there would be minimal soil compaction, adding a 2-4-inch layer of pure mushroom compost to the top of each bed provided a great start for the crops that we directly seeded and also provided extra nutrients for our transplants.

    IMG_0460Getting away from non-organic pest controls and other harsh means of dealing with pests proved to be a great idea. There were times when it seemed that the pests definitely had the upper-hand – the larvae of the Colorado Potato Beetle, and the infamous Japanese Beetle were both very worthy adversaries and will doubtless return in large numbers every year – but thanks to the few organic pesticides we used and the other non-chemical strategies that we put in place, our plants were able to do the rest of the work for themselves having gotten a great start with all the soil nutrients they needed. There were very few casualties due to insect damage. I was very impressed and surprised.

    Intensive spacing techniques (which I learned about in “How to Grow More Vegetables”) felt like a very risky move for me, being inexperienced and only “book smart” about gardening. A lot of folks passed by the garden and nodded their heads in disbelief at the spacing of our plants and the lack of straight rows that are all a part of this system of spacing plants so that they are as close together as IMG_0472possible without hindering each other. In the end, I have to admit that it worked. The plants did create a “living mulch” over the soil, shading out the sun from exposed areas, keeping the soil moist in dry spells and also muscling out the weeds that were hard to get to. I’d also be willing to bet that the diversified plantings we did along with the intensive spacing threw a few curve balls at pests who were probably mystified by tomato plants that were surrounded by marigolds. My only complaint about this technique is that it leads to a very crowded-looking garden and the compulsive side of my brain missed those very neat and manicured rows that everyone else’s garden boasted.

And now, a look back at the magnificent vegetables/fruits/legumes that graced the stage, this year, and made their mark on the plate and the pantry with stunning skill and versatility: (in order from east to west in the garden)

    Tomatoes – We grew 28 tomato plants in all, 4 different varieties. The first to produce was the Silvery Fir variety. They produced large clusters of medium-to-small, perfectly round fruits with a Silvery Fir Tomatoes 1juicy, citrusy zing. The Celebrity tomatoes lived up to their name, producing medium-to-large orbs of fruit that were the perfect blend of pulp and juiciness making them well-suited for sauces or fresh eating. The Red & Yellow Brandywines were monstrous plants that produced monstrous tomatoes that were often not the prettiest tomatoes in the garden but were certainly the tastiest – very complex flavors. We were very pleased that the seed mix had provided us with a perfect mix of plants that produced both yellow and red fruits. Finally, the Speckled Romans were prolific producers of very peculiar-looking roma-style tomatoes of various sizes. Some were giant while others quite small. Regardless of their size, however, their taste was a meaty, almost-bacony saltiness. They were very tasty on fresh salads but also melted very smoothly into sauces.

    Lettuce – Great Lakes Crisphead was an excellent varietyIMG_0632 and remained surprisingly pest-free, for the most part. Because I’d not had the time to stagger our plantings, however, all of the lettuce became ready at around the same time and we had more than we could handle at once! Thankfully we were able to give what we couldn’t use away.

    Pole Beans – Though many pods were apparently stolen throughout the season before they reached the ripeness I was looking for, the Scarlet Emperor beans were beautiful plants with stunning red blossoms and fat, speckled, purplish beans. I only managed to get about 2 cups of beans from their efforts thanks to the thieves. The Kentucky Wonder beans were wonderful! Very plain-looking plants, but they still produced quite the bounty of beans – close to 3 pounds (not bad for 3 small rows).

    Scarlet Emperor Beans 2Kentucky Wonder Harvest 1

    Cucumbers – The Homemade Pickles variety is a winner in our opinion. The cucumbers IMG_0784were always perfect-sized when they were ripe and their color and skin were perfect for pickling. The vines are definitely compact enough that they don’t need trellising, but I’d definitely consider growing them under summerweight fabric to protect them, early on, from the cucumber beetles that nearly wrecked them in the first month of the season.

    Carrots – We grew three varieties of carrots (Carnival, Tonda di Parigi, and Royal Chantenay) and all produced wonderfully. These were harvested fairly recently, so you can read of their splendor on this post.

    Royal Chantenay & Tonda di Parigi Carrots 2First Harvest Silvery Fir Tomatoes & Cocozelle Zucchini

    Zucchini – Just one plant from the Cocozelle variety produced several zucchini (a few of them much larger than we’d intended). Zucchini, being such a versatile (tasteless) ingredient made appearances in several recipes, both sweet and savory.

    Jarrahdale Pumpkins 1

    Pumpkins – Both the Sugar Pie and the Jarrahdale variety performed well, in spite of the Sugar Pie Pumpkin Harvestcircumstances that I mentioned, earlier. We finished the season with 10 Sugar Pies and 4 Jarrahdales – definitely not too shabby for such a small bed and my lack of experience. Thanks to summerweight fabric and perhaps the overcrowded vines, we were not visited by the dreaded Squash Vine Borers.

Lastly, though the garden was a crowded mess by mid-season, thanks to the hard work of three very special flowers, things remained beautiful: French Favorite Marigolds, Giant Zinnias and Autumn Beauty Sunflowers. They were very tolerant of being spaced strangely and held their ground against pests just as well as the other plants.

Giant Zinnias 3First Harvest Giant Zinnia 2IMG_0335Autumn Beauty Sunflowers 3

So, the question remains: was The Big Garden Project a success? Did we get from it what I planned we would? I’d have to say that we did. While we’ve mostly reached the end of the fresh produce from the IMG_1191garden and have only now slowly begun to delve into the dried, canned, and frozen goodies we packed away, it’s been marvelous to make favorite recipes and know that anywhere from 25-100% of the ingredients were grown completely free of pesticides and herbicides by our own hands! I’m thoroughly in love with the connection that we’ve been able to establish between our daily routines and our daily food needs.

IMG_0344Thanks to the rigorous planning, the hard work, the hot and sweaty days, and the relentless battles with pests and potential plant diseases, we have a full appreciation for the effort and care that’s needed to get food on our table three times a day. It’s a startling bit of knowledge, at the same time, and it really does cause you to cherish every morsel – from the plumpest pumpkin down to the tiniest bean. Beyond getting a very real understanding why GOOD food is expensive, you start to find the idea of “cheap food” as mysterious and suspect. You suddenly realize – in a very personal way — food doesn’t come from “the store”, it comes from hard work, passion, and – yes – love.

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I’ve been asked by several friends whether or not we’ll be doing “The Big Garden Project” again, next year. I’ve been asking myself that question all season long, hoping that the answer will soon be definite. IMG_0619If I were able to decide based only on the positives of the situation, I wouldn’t hesitate to say we’ll be doing it again next year. Standing in the way, of course, is the 40-mile distance that made being a very attentive gardener a never-ending challenge.

All summer long, I worked a full-time job and then usually 2-3 times a week also committed to a 2.5-hour commute where I’d then have to race around in what little daylight and energy was left to tend to the garden. This was also stressful for James because this meant that he’d left for work early in the morning only to have to stay in his office for an extra 3-4 hours while I was out playing Farmer Brown!

So, I don’t know. It’s tempting to say, “It was sure fun, but I think I’ll hang up my gardener’s hat, for now,” but something tells me that come February I’ll be eager to get out the graphing paper and the seed catalogs and start planning yet another garden. Maybe I’ll leave it up to circumstance and/or fate. I’ll keep you posted!
Jason

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~ by Jason on October 1, 2010.

2 Responses to “The Big Garden Project 2010: Season in Review”

  1. […] more: The Big Garden Project 2010: Season in Review « Tales of Thyme & Place AKPC_IDS += "7879,";Popularity: unranked […]

  2. I have certainly enjoyed your recipes. They are so delicious and easy to fix. Thank you so much for sharing. God has blessed the two of you with great gifts. God bless. Bev.

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